Saint Katharine Drexel and Native Americans
From Saints and Other Powerful Women in the Church Katharine Drexel begins her walk serving Native Americans
The Lord, not allowing too much time for grieving, sent two Catholic missionaries to the Drexel home. They came with well-founded fears that the U.S. government’s recent poor handling of Indian affairs would undo all that had been built up so far to further the education of the Native Americans. Knowing of their parents’ generous philanthropic work on behalf of the needy, they were appealing now to their daughters for help.
As Katharine Drexel had been sensitive to the plight of the Indians from the trip to the Northwest, and had recently read a book outlining the poor relations between Whites and Indians, they had a sympathetic ear.
The missionaries had arrived on the tail of the total breakdown of President Grant’s peace process. Responding to over 300 violations, by former administrations of peace treaties with the Indians, President Grant ordered the placement of Indians on reservations, where he believed they would be protected. Whereas they had originally been managed by an Army officer in each territory, Grant relieved them of that duty and handed over Indian affairs to Protestant denominations.
Now, for years, the Catholic missionaries had set up missions and churches in 38 of 72 posts. With the relinquishing of the different territories to the Protestants, the government ordered Catholic missionaries to turn over 30 of the 38 territories. With this action, the government placed 80,000 Catholic Indians under the care of the Protestants. The Church addressed this by setting up a Catholic Commission for Indian Affairs, to be available to the Indians. In 1881, Grant’s policy failed and along with it, the Protestant missions in the territories. They left!
By 1882, the situation between the Indians and the Whites was not only unresolved, it had reached disaster proportions. One of Katharine’s visitors was Father Stephan, a former German nobleman, who had promised he would serve God as a priest if he regained his sight. Father was healed miraculously. His sight regained, he came to the United States and was ordained in 1849. He served as a chaplain in the Civil War and after that ended, dedicated his life and priesthood serving in the Indian mission. As Catholic Commissioner of Indian Affairs, he was firmly resolved that the only answer was Catholic education for the Indians; but he explained to the Drexel sisters, it was stymied by the possible withdrawal of the inconsequential support supplied by the government. The sisters promised to lend their support, and they kept that commitment, especially Katharine, for the rest of their lives.
The loss of both mother and father within two years completely crushed Katharine. Her health suffered seriously; she became jaundiced; she lost weight and even of more concern, she lost that vivacious involvement in life that was so electrifying. Her doctor recommended she get treatment from a spa in Europe. No sooner was her health renewed, she and her sisters began recruiting Priests and Nuns for the Indian Missions.
Katharine goes to Rome and returns with a missionary Katharine Drexel and her sisters went to Rome and had two private audiences with Pope Leo XIII, where they implored the Pope to send additional missionaries to the Indians in the New World. The Pope’s answer was, “Why not, my child, yourself become a missionary?” Completely misunderstanding His Holiness, Katharine responded, “Because Holy Father, Sisters can be had for the missions, but no Priests.” Not over her bereavement, and not completely recovered from her illness, Katharine was overpowered by the mandate. She went to her hotel and cried!
The three sisters returned to the United States, whereupon Katharine immediately set about visiting the Indian Missions in the Dakotas, with Bishop O’Connor accompanying them. The little holy contingency traveled by horseback, by carriage and by railroad, through peril-filled territories. There were no smiling faces along the way, only suspicion and mistrust. Although she had been studying the Indians’ plight since she was a young girl, she was totally unprepared for the suffering and despair, the utter misery she encountered. Although weighed down by the enormity of the need, the little company plodded on, refusing to succumb to the tempter who was attempting to fill them with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Mother Drexel meets Red Cloud, Indian Chief Finally they arrived at the mission and were met by Father Stephan, the missionary, they had met in Philadelphia. He introduced them to the famous Sioux Indian Chief, Red Cloud, apprising him of the sisters’ desire to help the missions and set up a school dedicated to teaching the children of his tribe.
The Drexels never reneged on this promise.
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